I know nothing about Taylor Swift. I’m familiar with the song “Shake it Off” because — let’s face it — it’s difficult not to be. It isn’t quite up there with that Bryan Adams song from the early 90s, but it was still pretty damn impossible to escape. Having said that, I have nothing against the woman. She is a tremendously successful pop singer and although I am partial to a good pop song at times, I am clearly not her target demographic. Which is fine.
If someone has studied my catalog and still doesn’t think I’m behind it, there’s nothing I can do for that person. They may have to deal with their own sexist issues, because if I were a guy and you were to look at my catalog and my lyrics, you would not wonder if I was the person behind it.
At the risk of being accused of mansplaining again, can I just point out that — while I acknowledge there are people out there who will question the abilities of a woman to write a song purely because she is a woman; those people exist, they are called “asshats” (amongst other things) — I myself was mildly surprised to learn that Swift writes her own songs. But not because she is a woman… no, it’s because she’s a photogenic young pop-star.
That doesn’t preclude a person from also being a songwriter of course. And my surprise was only “mild”… I’m not refusing to believe it or anything. Thing is, I would be just as surprised to discover that One Direction write their own stuff (do they?) It’s not sexism; it’s just cynicism about the modern music industry. If you’re young, good-looking, polished and highly-successful then my initial assumption — male or female — is that you’re essentially the product of a marketing algorithm. As I say; cynicism not sexism.
photo by Alan Light
And it’s not just the “young and good-looking” bit (though that is fairly prevalent). It’s more the “polish”, the genuine difficulty I have discerning a modern pop video from an advert for a trendy clothes store… I never for a moment doubted that Patti Smith wrote every syllable of every song (well, except the cover versions obviously!) Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, Stina Nordenstam, Siouxsie Sioux, Joni Mitchell… women can write incredible songs. And the flip-side is also true… Jason Donovan sold millions of records singing songs written by Stock, Aiken & Waterman. Milli Vanilli didn’t even do their own singing!
So yes; there are probably some asshats out there who think “Taylor Swift didn’t write that — she’s a girl!” But most of us, I suspect, were thinking “Taylor Swift probably didn’t write that — it’s 2016 and she’s a pop star”. That assumption — it turns out — is plain wrong. But it’s not sexist. No more than the growing scepticism surrounding Milli Vanilli in 1989 was racist.
Browsing twitter, I noticed Chris Brooke posted a link to an interview with a Tory MP in which he reveals that U2 is his favourite band.
Now I happen to really like U2. It’s difficult perhaps to separate them from their stratospheric success (and Bono’s messianic shenanigans) and appreciate them musically. But just because Achtung Baby and Zooropa sold a kajillion copies doesn’t stop them being two of the most sonically interesting records of the 90s. As with The White Album… sometimes the stars align and what is popular achieves harmony with what is Truly Great. The albums just before and just after Achtung Baby and Zooropa had wonderful moments, but (and this not a popular opinion among my more musically discerning friends) those two were perfect slices of musical Greatness.
Crucially though, what they are not is political. There’s veiled social commentary here and there, but it’s mostly love songs, songs of regret, songs of personal loss and a whole bunch of Irish Catholicism. All played out across an Eno-produced soundscape of rock, electronica and complex polyrhythms. It’s what Can would have sounded like if they’d formed in 1989 and had an ego-maniacal philanthropist from Dublin as a lead singer.
As I say though, it’s not political music and they are not – in general – a political band. Sure, no band goes 30 years without doing some political stuff, but overall that’s not what they’re about, and an appreciation for U2’s music is no indication of political leanings (unlike say, Billy Bragg… if you say you’re a big Billy Bragg fan there’s a better than evens chance you’re left wing). Meanwhile, I doubt there’s a great many left wing Ted Nugent fans.
So it does not surprise me that a Tory MP would be a U2 fan. No more than it would surprise me that a Tory MP might be a big fan of Miles Davis.
What I did find surprising about Sajid Javid MP’s interview, however, was his claim that his favourite film is It’s A Wonderful Life. Because that film is overtly political. It’s a film that is vitriolic about the effects of capitalism on community life. Sure, sure, some see it as an ode to a simpler, kinder capitalism (a golden age that never existed) but that’s hogwash – Master’s degree in Critical Theory and Film Studies be damned! – it’s as close to a socialist manifesto as mainstream American cinema is ever likely to achieve.
And if that last scene where the whole town gathers together and pools their money to help out a down-on-his-luck neighbour is too subtle a metaphor for the average Tory MP; the film even has a character who clearly and unequivocally represents the capitalist establishment… represents Toryism. So how difficult must it be to list It’s A Wonderful Life as your favourite film when it chooses to depict you as Henry Potter?
This week, quite rightly, the media has been buzzing with news of the return of David Bowie. His first new material in a decade was released, quite unexpectedly, on Tuesday; his 66th birthday. The song – Where Are We Now? – is a lovely, melancholy meditation on lost youth. Filled with references to Berlin, where Bowie himself spent several years in the 1970s, it was produced by Tony Visconti who – along with Bowie and Brian Eno – formed the Holy Trinity responsible for the three late-70s albums that (in my personal opinion) represent the pinnacle of Bowie’s creative output. I know that sounds like I’m saying he “peaked” with “Heroes”, Low and Lodger and then went into decline. But that’s not how I see it. Yes, there was something of a trough in the 1980s, but 1.Outside in the mid-90s saw him once again climb creative heights rarely visited by others and of the four 90s / early noughties albums that followed, only Hours was less than brilliant (both Earthling and Heathen are grossly underrated and Reality has some stonking songs on it though you might argue there’s some filler there too).
The new single is to be followed by an album in March (called The Next Day) which I am eagerly anticipating. And while well-publicised health problems suggest he may not tour the new songs, we can still hope against hope. Right? As well as the inevitable cooing from die-hard fans (of which I am one and for which I make no apology) there have been other responses. Thanks to the internet, you can read the views of the cynics and the compulsive denigrators just as easily as the views of the die-hard fans. Which is fine. If people genuinely don’t like Bowie, or genuinely find the new song lacking in some way then they are just as entitled to express that opinion as people like myself who are excited about it. Mind you, a lot of the criticism I’ve encountered smacks somewhat of deliberate contrarianism. It comes from the same sort of people who tell you The Beatles never wrote a good tune, Citizen Kane is overrated and insist they don’t understand the phrase “best thing since sliced bread” because frankly sliced bread is shit.
And you know what, those folk are also just as entitled to express their opinion. I find it a little sad that people actively seek the sensation of jadedness – something I seem to spend a whole lot of time battling – but I don’t have to live their lives so let them at it… I’m not looking for repressive legislation on the matter.
Anyway, here’s the new single (along with the odd video). If you’ve not already heard it, I hope you like it as much as I do. I found myself humming it after just one listen and yet I’d still describe it as “a grower” because I’m enjoying it more and more with each new hearing.
The other David B
In my personal musical universe there’s probably only one other person who rivals David Bowie for the top spot (luckily my musical universe is polytheistic in nature, so they don’t need to fight it out). And that’s David Byrne. Like Bowie, David Byrne’s finest hour was quite a while ago – and perhaps not at all coincidentally – also involved Brian Eno. I’m speaking of course about Remain In Light, the greatest album ever recorded.
Also like Bowie, however, that didn’t represent a “peak” from which there was only a long decline ahead. No, like Bowie’s Low, Remain In Light was simply the tallest tree in a forest of redwoods. His career since Talking Heads has been generally overlooked by the mainstream (with the occasional exception… his Oscar for The Last Emperor soundtrack being one such exception) but is no less because of it. So when I read a review of last year’s Love This Giant (a collaboration with St. Vincent) that described the album as “a return to form” I was genuinely mystified. You can’t return to something you never left, and Byrne has been “on form” pretty much since 1977. Whether it was his work with Talking Heads, his solo stuff, his collaborations (with Eno, Fat Boy Slim, St. Vincent and others) or his many books, films and installations; Byrne has consistently brought joy, light, wonder and a great rhythm section to my life.
Love This Giant is another wonderful record. The heavy use of “heavy brass” gives it quite a distinctive sound, setting it apart from most of his other work (excluding, of course, his album of brass band compositions – Music For The Knee Plays). In fact it contains a song (I Should Watch TV) that rocketed straight into my top 10 Byrne tracks and which I listen to regularly. How pleasing, therefore, that it appears on the short live concert by Byrne and St. Vincent that’s just been released by NPR. I recommend the entire gig as it showcases a genuinely wonderful album while throwing in a couple of older tracks. But if you’ve only got a few minutes, then skip ahead to 24:40 and listen to the glorious I Should Watch TV.
As I’m sure you’re aware by now, Whitney Houston has just died at the age of 48. I personally wouldn’t have been the biggest fan of her music, but her ubiquity for several years means that she did weave herself into the soundtrack of my life, whether I liked it or not. And I admit, there were times when it was very much “not”. Back in the winter of 1992 it was just impossible to escape her massive hit, I Will Always Love You. You’d walk into shops and where you’d expect to hear Christmas music over the speaker system, there’d be that bloody song again. The radio-waves were saturated with the damn thing and music television was in cahoots.
All the same though, that was a pretty good period in my life. I was a young undergraduate and thoroughly enjoying my party years in North London. So despite the fact that I really hated that song by the springtime of 1993, and despite the fact that I would never in a million years voluntarily listen to it, I found myself smiling with a wistful nostalgia when I heard it being played yesterday as a tribute. That overplayed – and overwrought – tune brought back a bunch of good memories with it.
As well as that, Whitney Houston was also – indirectly – responsible for a particularly lovely moment a few years back. I generally do my best to see David Byrne whenever he tours. His music is genuinely important to me and he’s one of the very few people I’ll travel distances to see live these days. Anyway, a few years back he played London and I naturally went along. The gig was – as ever – wonderful and it was a fantastic evening. By the time the encore came around I’d pretty much worked out that we’d be hearing Psycho Killer as it hadn’t appeared earlier in the set. And we weren’t disappointed; that dark and brooding bassline conjuring up all the right kinds of sinister. It’s still such a thrill to hear that song loud and live in a darkened venue.
Then, however, after Byrne had finished urging us to run, run away… the lights brightened and the strings kicked in with an oddly familiar tune. I couldn’t place it at first. Up-tempo and the complete opposite of Psycho Killer. “Maybe something from Uh Oh“, I thought, “I’ve not listened to that album in a while”. But almost immediately I’d thought that, I suddenly realised what the song was…
It was infectious, bouncy and genuinely joyous. Byrne was more than capable of putting a dark spin on the track; subtly subverting it and turning it into something strange and unsettling. But he didn’t. Instead he played it completely straight. No hint of irony. And it worked so well. Everyone danced. Everyone looked at the person next to them with a broad grin on their face. And everyone left the gig feeling slightly euphoric.
So I’d like to thank Whitney Houston (via Mr. Byrne) for that small gift. Rest in peace.
I assumed from the #BBC4 hashtag that there was some 80s music documentary being broadcast, but taken at face value (obvious comedy hyperbole aside) I realised I wasn’t entirely sure whether I’d be up before that firing squad or not. If asked to name a favourite decade, musically speaking, my immediate reaction would be to say “the 70s”. But when I gave it a bit more thought (probably considerably more than @J___Williamson meant her tweet to be subjected to) I realised that – assuming we start “the 80s” in 1980 – rather than 1981 as some are wont to do – then it’s fair to say that my favourite album of all time is an 80s album (Remain in Light by Talking Heads). In fact, a huge amount of my favourite music was released during the 1980s.
1980 also saw the release of Joy Division’s Closer. It was the year of Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, of Autoamerican and of Heartattack And Vine. And the decade that followed saw the entire career of The Smiths and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It saw Tom Waits move from good to great and on into godlike. The 80s saw Prince at his peak. And what a peak that was. There are moments on Sign ‘O’ The Times that still send shivers down my spine despite the familiarity of 25 years of regular play. It was the decade that brought us the best of The Cure, of The The, of Kate Bush and of The Cocteau Twins. And it was the decade that kicked off the careers of Nick Cave, The Legendary Pink Dots and World Party.
And you know what…? I’ve not even begun to do the 80s justice. Byrne and Eno’s My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, Peter Gabriel’s So, Paul Simon’s Graceland and Julian Cope’s Fried all helped make the decade what it was. There were seminal records from Siouxsie and the Banshees, R.E.M., and I’m even prepared to put in a good word for The Joshua Tree which – for all its over-earnest breast-beating – contains some cracking tunes. Sure it was a low point for David Bowie, but elsewhere good music was thriving.
But of course, I could make a similar case for the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1990s and even the noughties; though I would probably find that more difficult as I’ve discovered less new music in the past ten years. Probably a result of advancing age as well as having an already extremely extensive record collection that does its best to crowd out new releases (there are, after all, only so many hours in the day). Actually, it’s not ten years… looking at my media player, it appears that my discovery of new albums tapers off somewhat in 2007. There’s still a handful each year after that, but nothing like as many as there once was.
As it happens, I have a theory that music has become less culturally important in the past few years and – as a result – there’s less great stuff being produced (“less” not “none”). I’m not sure that theory stands up to scrutiny… though it’d be a good discussion to have over a few pints of Guinness.
Then, as I began to mentally put together the case for the 1970s, it struck me just how arbitrary the “decade” distinction is. It’s a cultural shorthand that extends far beyond music of course, but it tends to be used most frequently in that arena. Most albums released in 1989 have far more in common with the music of 1992 than they do with the music of 1982. There are records from 1979 and from 1991 that – to all intents and purposes – qualify as 80s music. And there are records from the early 80s that tend to be seen as part of the 1970s. The same is true for all decades. The Beatles were a 1960s band even if Let It Be was released in 1970. Hell, I think of The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as being “of the sixties” even though the majority of their output – quantitatively speaking – came afterwards. And I don’t know where the hell Van Morrison fits in. Astral Weeks (“best album ever recorded except when Remain In Light is” tm) was released in 1968, but is essentially timeless, and damn near everything else he did came post-1970.
On top of that, there’s the fact that the truly great music of every decade… of every year… is massively outweighed in terms of sheer volume, by the truly awful. Or the merely uninteresting. For every I’m Your Man or Lovesexy there are a dozen of Hold Me in Your Arms and Kylie. Two dozen.
So does it even make sense to talk about whether the music of the 90s is better than the music of the 80s? Certainly Bone Machine and Henry’s Dream are better albums than White Feathers and Blackout. But you could just as easily choose Wet Wet Wet and Bryan Adams as your representatives of the 1990s, and… well… they’re no Prince or The Smiths.
In fact, you just have to compare Prince to… er… Prince. The 80s really come out of that one smiling.
In the end, I came to the conclusion that – when all’s said and done – there’s a pretty simple way to identify precisely when music was at its very best. Ask yourself the following question… “When was my 21st birthday?” Now, take the five years before that. Take the five years after. Add them together and you have the best decade for music. See? Simple. And no firing squads required.
Greetings dear reader, and welcome to 2012. I hope your journey through 2011 wasn’t too arduous and you managed to avoid the worst of the nastiness it contained. It wasn’t all nasty of course. Far from it. But the continuing financial crisis certainly made it feel that way at times. Incidentally, I’m trying to come up with a better phrase than “financial crisis” with which to label the ongoing state of affairs. Something that better encapsulates the wholesale transfer of public wealth into the coffers of a small number of private corporations and institutions currently being sanctioned by our governments. Because despite the political sloganeering that claims “we’re all in this together” and speaks of “sharing the pain”, an examination of the facts would suggest that the “financial crisis” isn’t actually happening to the powerful or wealthy. In fact, with a few exceptions, they seem to be doing rather well out of it.
Perhaps “the return to feudalism” might be a better label than “the financial crisis”? It conveys both the huge increase in inequality that’s underway. along with the complete loss of democratic accountability. Though perhaps it’s a little abstract for the general public. After all, we’re talking about populations who consume reality television in massive doses while electing right wing governments without exception. And yes, even those populations who elect nominally “centre left” governments are in fact electing right wing governments; the centre has shifted so far to the right that even the leftist fringes have given up talking about large-scale nationalisation and content themselves with demanding relatively minor changes to the taxation regime and slightly stricter regulation of the financial sector. Don’t get me wrong… that’s better than the status quo but it’s not exactly the million miles from the status quo that we should be moving with all haste.
Anyway, enough of that for now. I have a new post brewing on the subject of Ireland withdrawing from the euro in which I’ll be discussing the return to feudalism (nah, it doesn’t trip easily enough off the tongue… I welcome suggestions for a better label) in greater depth. For now, sit back and enjoy a brief round-up of the highlights – from my perspective – of 2011. There were a few hidden among the carnage.
From a purely personal standpoint, I continued to share my life with a wonderful woman. The lovely Citizen S remains the best thing in my world and I can’t thank her enough for putting up with my many foibles. I also became an uncle and godfather for the first time, which was groovy. Financially things could have been better (hint: job offers welcome!) but we didn’t go hungry, had a roof over our heads and managed to pay the bills. We even had a little left over to visit Serbia a couple of times, have a short break in Kerry and generally enjoy life. So whatever else might have happened in 2011, here in the Bliss household, it didn’t suck.
Sporting highlights of 2011
With each passing year I find myself becoming more and more intrigued by sporting events. I’m not sure if this is a symptom of growing old or just that I’ve found myself spending more time with sports fans and gaining an appreciation through them. Either way, I was delighted when Dublin won the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final for the first time since 1995, in what even the losing fans agreed was one of the most exciting matches in living memory. As fine an advertisement for amateur sports as you’re likely to see. The image to the right shows the moment – deep into stoppage time – that Dublin goalkeeper, Stephen Cluxton, kicked the winning point. Truly a “leap into the air whooping” moment if ever there was one. Apologies to readers from Kerry, but despite your loss I’m sure you’ll agree it was a wonderful match, objectively speaking.
Elsewhere in sport, Ireland had a somewhat disappointing tournament in the rugby world cup in what was probably the last chance for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ to win the competition. It’s a shame really… players as supremely talented as Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and the rest were good enough to have retired with a World Cup Winner’s Medal around their necks; they just never managed to find their best performances when it really mattered. However, our soccer team managed to qualify for the European Championships next year, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament in over a decade, which almost makes up for the unjust manner in which we missed out on the 2010 World Cup (I don’t think the Irish nation has yet forgiven Thierry Henry).
In golf, Irishmen (albeit Northern Irishmen) had the world at their feet. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke each won one of the four Major Championships. The previous year, Graeme McDowell also won a Major. And that came only a couple of years after Dublin man, Padraig Harrington, won three Majors in two years. Lately we’ve been punching above our weight for a small island. Long may it continue.
Last year I also followed tennis for the first time. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic became world number one and had one of the game’s greatest years ever, completely dominating the sport by winning three of the Grand Slam tournaments and a whole bunch of other competitions. All of this on the back of leading Serbia to its first ever Davis Cup win. Oh how we cheered in the Bliss household.
Also Tottenham Hotspur, the only premiership team worth watching, have had a wonderful 2011. So that’s nice.
Musical highlights of 2011
I wish I could say that 2011 saw lots of great new albums, films and TV shows. But it didn’t. I got into Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea in a big way in 2011, but that was actually released in 2010 so doesn’t really count I suppose. Still, get hold of it if you’ve not already as it’s really rather good. I seem to be a year behind with Eno and have yet to get hold of his 2011 album, Drums Between The Bells, but from past experience, I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I do.
The two albums released in 2011 that I have got hold of (though only very recently) and which I heartily recommend are Uf! by the astonishingly wonderful Serbian band, Disciplin a Kitschme and In Love With Oblivion by Crystal Stilts. The Crystal Stilts album continues their Joy Division meets Jesus and Mary Chain vibe, though this time it seems to be passed through a late-60s psychedelia filter rather than the Americana of the first album… there are definitely shades of The Doors and The Velvet Underground hidden within the fuzzy guitars and echoing vocals, though with the occasional return to their earlier sound as on the excellent Alien Rivers. Best track (in my view) is the album closer, Prometheus at Large. An altogether wonderful noise.
Perhaps even more wonderful is the driving bass and drums of Disciplin a Kitschme. The new album is probably the most commercial thing they’ve done, but don’t let that worry you, they are still a long long way from the mainstream. The excellent single, Ako ti je glasno… (“If it’s loud…”) is about as mainstream as they get. It’s a grinding four minute kickass tune, cut down from the nine minute heaviness of the album version, which kicks off Uf! and heralds the onset of a really great record. One I’ll be listening to for many years to come and – from my perspective – the best release of 2011. Despite digging the band’s vocals, my personal favourite tracks – though it’s genuinely difficult to pick – would probably be the two long instrumentals; Nimulid Rok and the weird Manitu VI which veers perilously close to jazz and has a didgeridoo, yet still manages to sound awesome. For some reason, those YouTube uploads truncate the tracks, which should be nearly 6 and 10 minutes respectively.
Ako ti je glasno…
Aside from that, there was little that really grabbed me musically in 2011. The X-Factor continued to chip away at the collective soul of humanity while Adele, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z continued to sell records by the pallet-load. Clearly lots of people enjoy that stuff, but it doesn’t float my boat. In fact, it actively threatens to torpedo my boat and machine-gun any survivors who make it to the life-rafts. Bastards!
Movie highlights of 2011
I have to admit, I didn’t see many of 2011’s crop of new movies. I saw a few of the blockbuster releases, not one of which impressed me very much. I’m not sure whether big budget spectaculars have gotten worse in the past few years, or whether I’ve just become jaded (I’d like to think it’s the former, because I’ve always loved the whole roller-coaster-ride aspect of Hollywood spectaculars and would hate to think I’ve lost that sense of childlike wonder when it comes to shiny things moving at high speed and then exploding). So whether it was Thor or X-Men: First Class or the frankly risible Super-8 (an ET / Godzilla mash-up might sound great at 2am after some fine skunk, but it’s the kind of idea that should really be forgotten the next morning) there was a lot of “being underwhelmed” going on. Slightly better were Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau, both of which suffered from the same problem… a fantastic first half hour followed by an increasingly frustrating descent into nonsense and cliché. In particular I was annoyed by Limitless which – like Inception the previous year – took a glorious premise and completely squandered it.
Another notch up the ladder were Unknown and Battle: Los Angeles. Unknown did the same thing as the previous two films, but took longer to become crap, so at least the viewer has a good thriller for more than an hour before realising it’s going to end badly. Battle: Los Angeles, on the other hand, never promises more than it can deliver, even though it doesn’t promise much. A bunch of stereotypical Hollywood soldiers fight a running gun battle with technologically advanced aliens on the streets of Los Angeles. For two hours. Exciting while it’s directly in front of you and instantly forgettable. But at least it doesn’t leave you with a sense of wasted potential.
Much much better was the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost science fiction road movie, Paul. The critics may have dismissed it as lightweight, but frankly I consider any film that can have me laughing from start to finish a more than worthy accomplishment. It’s easily one of the best comedies of the past few years and just because comedies tend not to win awards doesn’t actually make them any less important. I highly recommend Paul to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. If you’re not a science fiction fan you will miss quite a few of the references, but I suspect you’ll still find plenty to laugh at.
About as far from Paul as it’s possible to get was the excellent The Sunset Limited which slipped under the radar somewhat but was no worse for it. Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones discuss religion and faith in a small room for an hour and a half. That’s pretty much it. It’s based on a Cormac McCarthy play and kept me rivetted to the screen for the duration despite the simple premise and basic setting. Just as Limitless provides an object-lesson in the damage that can be wreaked by bad writers, so The Sunset Limited demonstrates the power of good writing.
There are several of 2011’s most talked-about movies that I’ve yet to get around to seeing, so I completely accept that it may have been a far better year – filmically speaking – than I’m currently aware of. I’m really looking forward to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I thought the original film was excellent and usually hate American remakes of European films… but, well, it’s David Fincher isn’t it?) I also suspect I’ll enjoy John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (starring Brendan Gleeson), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and low-budget British science-fiction flick, Attack The Block when I get around to them.
Television highlights of 2011
As regular readers will know, I have a very high opinion of good television programmes. I think TV can be just as good as cinema, and – culturally speaking – more important. But only when done properly. Unfortunately it’s almost never done properly and the number of shows that make the grade, in my view, is absolutely tiny. As with every year, 2011 contained a couple of flashes of brilliance amidst an ocean of pure shit. 99% of television is soul-destroying and it’s very difficult to justify the existence of the medium even by pointing to the good bits. But 2011 did have the occasional good bit.
Probably the best thing broadcast last year was the glorious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dialogue, The Trip. From start to finish it was pure excellence and veered from the sublime to the pleasantly ridiculous without ever feeling forced. I enjoyed every moment of The Trip and will definitely be rewatching it before too long. Part of me hopes they make more, but part of me sees it as a perfect little gem that could be sullied by trying to stretch the idea any further.
As far from The Trip as The Sunset Limited is from Paul was the epic Game of Thrones. This HBO spectacular is based on a series of swords’n’sorcery novels that I’ve not read, but I was nevertheless engrossed by the twisty plot, the sumptuous production values, the fine scripting and the wonderful characters. I’m looking forward to Season 2, though I’m a little concerned that they may not be able to sustain the sense of dread that hovers over the whole affair.
I was going to include the amazing BBC update of Conan Doyle, Sherlock until I realised it was actually broadcast in 2010… where the hell has the time gone!? So instead I’ll just remind you all what a great show it is and point out that the second season has just begun (Sunday nights, BBC1 and on iPlayer if you can access it). Best thing on TV right now.
Beyond that, 2011 didn’t have anything new to offer, televisually. I’m told The Killing was rather good but I missed it. New seasons of old shows were either as good as ever (Breaking Bad and Community) or a bit of a disappointment (Bored to Death… still better than 99% of what’s out there, but failing to scale the dizzy heights of the first two seasons). Black Mirror was apparently fantastic, but I’ve yet to see it – though I intend to.
So yeah, not a great year for TV. But it never is, sadly.
Literary highlights of 2011
Errr… I’m well behind on my reading, so I can’t really do a decent “best books of 2011” bit. William Gibson’s Zero History was wonderful, but was published at the end of 2010 so doesn’t count. The same is true of Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game which was enjoyable though not quite as good as his previous chilling novel, The Execution Channel which was a brilliant dissection of The War Against Terror and the sinister places it might lead us.
In fact, I’m struggling to think of a single book published in 2011 that I’ve read. I would say that’s terrible, but it’s simply a function of the size of the “book queue” I have to get through. Unless something very very special comes out (a new one by Pynchon perhaps) books tend not to skip the queue. So I suspect I’ll get around to 2011’s crop of new ones early in 2013. So many books, not enough time. However, I will list a random selection of other books I read last year and which I’d recommend (the first five that pop into my head). None of which were published in 2011.
Well, I don’t want to stray too much into politics or economics in this entry as they tend to be the subject of most of my posts and I’d like to keep this one a little bit lighter. Still, there are a few things worth mentioning, but I’ll keep it brief. Firstly – and most obviously – we had the overthrow of despots in a few countries in North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia and Libya). This is unquestionably a good thing, but I still feel it’ll be a while before we know the full ramifications of the Arab revolutions. Let us hope for a better future for the people of those countries… they’re not there yet.
In Ireland the General Election demonstrated that the population really doesn’t know what’s good for it, but at least we elected Michael D. Higgins as President. Yes, it’s a largely ceremonial position and no, he wasn’t my first choice. But the fact that we didn’t elect Seán Gallagher – as it looked as though we might – means that the nation isn’t entirely off its head.
I guess the fact that the global economy didn’t completely implode can be seen as a bit of a highlight of 2011. Personally I’m hoping for a more gradual, orderly powerdown than the total collapse that threatens to occur thanks to the criminally irresponsible actions of those in power. But we shall see.
There were no major new wars, things didn’t get dramatically worse in the already war-torn and famine-struck regions of the world (even if they didn’t get substantially better) and nobody nuked anybody. All of which shouldn’t be considered highlights, but in these troubled times we’ll take what we can get.
And so there we have it. 2011 has done its worst and we’re still standing. There were high points as well as the much-publicised low ones. And overall, I’m damn glad I lived to see it all and look forward to saying the same in 12 months time. I’m often confused by how terrible the world can seem, because pretty much all the people I know personally are kind, decent, thoughtful and just want to make the world a better place. I guess it boils down to that line from Nietzsche, Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. All the same, maybe if the kind, decent, thoughtful folks raise their voices a little louder this year, we might just drag the rest of the world to a better place. Have a wondrous 2012, dear reader.
As even a casual reader of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of David Byrne. Hell, the blog title is lifted from the lyrics to one of his songs. In 1986 I bought my first album; a vinyl copy of Remain In Light, arguably the best recording in Talking Heads’ magnificent catalogue. Arguably the best recording I own (and I have a large record collection). I bought it on the strength of a mix tape that my friend, P, had made for me. It wasn’t long before I’d bought everything Talking Heads had released, plus the handful of solo albums and collaborations that Byrne had put out up to that point. And they told us that Home Taping was Killing Music.
Since then I’ve gotten hold of everything Byrne has produced; the mainstream releases, the mail-order-only stuff, bootlegs, demos and one-off collaborations on other people’s records. These days my need to be a completist has fallen by the wayside, except when it comes to David Byrne (well, him and Stina Nordenstam, but she’s not exactly prolific). I’m still genuinely excited when I hear about a new Byrne record (or book or tour). His music does everything I want from music. It makes me think, it makes me feel and it makes me want to shake my body rhythmically. Often all three simultaneously.
Because he’s really not let me down in a career spanning 33 years*, I’ve learnt to trust his instincts. So if he thinks that a double-album about the life of Imelda Marcos and Estrella Cumpas (the woman who raised her) with a different vocalist on each track and Fatboy Slim providing beats on about half the record is a good idea, then I’m more than happy to see where he goes with that.
And true to form, he’s gone somewhere quite splendid. Here Lies Love is a glorious record. I’m not going to say it’s better or worse than any other thing he’s done, but it holds its own with the best of his work.
Kicking off with the title track sung by Florence Welch, I finally have a song that lets me see what everyone else sees in Florence and The Machine, who — I confess — don’t really do it for me (“overhyped advertising jingles” was how I described FATM recently… but then, I tend to say that about almost anyone who allows corporations to use their music for consumerist propaganda). Byrne’s trademark “strings-and-latin-beats” form the basis of the track, but Welch’s soaring vocals and Fatboy Slim’s thumping bass create a truly ecstatic chorus that I defy anyone not to be humming long after the song’s over.
And it’s this fusion that elevates the record above pretty much any dance-pop out there right now. The vocalists all bring something wonderful to their songs, Fatboy Slim’s club sensibilities are evident throughout, but it never stops being a David Byrne record. There are echoes of Talking Heads all over the place (in fact it’s possibly the most ‘Talking Heads’-esque thing he’s done in years) along with the strings and latin percussion that fans of his solo work know and love.
It’s all there and it all works wonderfully.
While concept albums are often justly criticised for the triteness of the story they shoehorn into the lyrics, this one works superbly. Byrne is one of the great lyricists, despite his tendency towards self-deprecation in this area (“lyrics are just there to fool people into listening to the music”, he once said) and he’s really on form here. The story is deftly woven around the beats. And what a story it is too. Byrne is less interested in the politics than he is in the psychological factors that drove Imelda from her humble beginnings amid the poverty of the Philippine slums to the palaces and power of her latter years. As he says in the publicity for the record… “no, the shoes don’t get mentioned”… instead the focus is on her early life and the burning ambition it instilled within her. Her hunger for power along with her willingness to use her sexuality and sensuality to manipulate the men around her are the central themes here. And remember, those men included Nixon, Mao Tse-Tung and Colonel Gaddafi amongst many others.
While there’s a tiny part of me that’s a little disappointed not to hear more of Byrne’s vocals (he sings American Troglodyte and features on a couple of others including a duet with the breathtaking Shara Worden), there’s honestly not a single vocalist out of the 22 that fail to impress. Steve Earle is the only male voice (aside from Byrne) which perhaps makes his song, A Perfect Hand stand out a little further from the crowd than would otherwise be the case. But each and every singer is perfectly matched to their song. Tori Amos makes You’ll Be Taken Care Of her own, so after a couple of listens you couldn’t imagine one of the others singing it. And the same is true of them all.
Cyndi Lauper’s vocal on Eleven Days is oddly reminiscent of Prince during the good years. The dialogue / duet on Every Drop of Rain is utterly captivating with its description of slum life and the struggle to retain dignity while living on scraps and handouts
They called us garage people
Where we lived there, you and me
When you’re poor — it’s like you’re naked
And every drop of rain you feel
When it rained we slept on boxes
There was water all around
But the people in the big house
Never bothered to find out
No clothes, no bed, no jewelry
Sometimes I had no shoes
A typhoon came — the house collapsed
And the neighbors passed us food
Of them all, though — if I had to pick one — the ambiguous ode to repression, Order 1081, stands out with Natalie Merchant managing to sound plaintive and powerful all at once. A genuinely cracking track.
And all the while, Byrne and Fatboy Slim are turning these strange psychological ballads into music you can dance to. I’m utterly captivated by this record and suspect I will be for some time to come.
* He’s released some stuff that I don’t listen to very often, but nothing I’d consider bad.
I was in town today and found myself with an hour to kill before the next bus home. I have an established routine for such situations… firstly a trip to Hodges & Figgis on Dawson Street, Ireland’s largest bookstore (famously mentioned in Ulysses) where I’m more than happy to spend a whole afternoon in sedate browsing. Despite having been absorbed by the massive HMV group, the shop still retains a quiet charm and a real sense of history.
Even though it’s possible to spend several hours in Hodges & Figgis, I like to leave 20 minutes before the bus so I can spend a little while wandering around Tower Records on Wicklow Street, a shop that completely transcends its ‘franchise’ nature and contains one of the best selections of non-mainstream music in the city. As I approached the record shop I could hear music emerging through the open door. “Could that possibly be a Joy Division track I’ve not heard?” was my initial thought.
Unlikely. I’ve got all their albums (including the 4-disc Heart & Soul boxset) and I’m pretty damn familiar with them all.
As I crossed the Tower threshold, the music became clearer and it was fairly obvious that it wasn’t Joy Division. Instead it sounded for all the world like what The Jesus and Mary Chain would sound like if they reformed as a Joy Division tribute band. But in a very good way.
I’d no idea who it was, but I was really digging them as I browsed the usual places… no, still no Legendary Pink Dots since I’d bought the last two albums they’d stocked. But at least they had one of those plastic dividers with “LEGENDARY PINK DOTS” typed across the top. A silent promise. Nor could I find the new Peter Gabriel album which contains an amazing cover of the Talking Heads classic “Listening Wind”, which was good enough to make me resolve to buy the album when I see it.
I continued to browse (got tempted to buy the CD/DVD package to Bowie’s Reality Tour) and continued to enjoy the music playing at a pleasing volume over the P.A. system. David Byrne’s latest project (the soundtrack to a musical he wrote about the life of Imelda Marcos; the music a collaboration with Fat Boy Slim) positively demanded I buy it, but my resolve to not spend more than €30 on this visit meant that I had to be careful with the decision. And I found myself — almost without noticing — carrying the recent CD reissue of “Tracks and Traces” (a 1976 collaboration between Brian Eno and Harmonia) around the shop with me. It soon became apparent that part of me was not going to permit the rest of me to leave the shop without it.
So that was one.
I briefly toyed with buying the new Gorillaz album. But it was a very brief flirtation. I have a fair amount of time for Damon Albarn these days and dug the first Gorillaz album a lot. The b-sides and remix album from the same period was also pretty excellent, though the second studio record was a bit of a let down.
And all the while, the Joy Division vs The Jesus and Mary Chain groove had me nodding my head as I wandered the aisles. I still had no idea who it was, but by now the faint twang of Americana had me fairly convinced that I was listening to something from the US East Coast rather than Manchester or Scotland. Eventually a track came on (which I later discovered was called “The Sinking”) which gave me little choice but to walk to the counter and find out who I was listening to.
Alight of Night by Crystal Stilts. An excellent album.
Approaching the desk, still clutching “Tracks and Traces”, I asked the girl at the till who we were listening to. She grabbed a CD from behind the desk and I saw an unfamiliar cover and a name I didn’t recognise. The album was called “Alight of Night” by New York band Crystal Stilts, released in 2008. Much to my amusement and delight, the shop assistant had put a sticker on the front of the jewel case. “Recommended for fans of Joy Division and The Jesus and Mary Chain”, it read.
I couldn’t not buy it. The last one in the shop (I wasn’t the first person to buy it on the strength of hearing it in-store apparently). Which is how for a total of €29.98 I emerged from Tower Records with the Eno & Harmonia reissue and an album I didn’t even know existed 30 minutes earlier.
I’d like to point y’all towards the new album by David Byrne and Brian Eno. Anyone who knows me knows that these two guys feature very high on my personal “musical heroes” list. So a direct collaboration between them will always be a very special thing for me.
The first thing to point out is that this is not My Life in The Bush of Ghosts II. It’s nothing like it at all. If anything, it’s not unlike Eno’s last vocal album. If you liked that, then you’ll love this. And even if you didn’t… check this one out anyway.
It’s a real grower. I liked it the first time I listened to it. Second time, as I took a walk along the country lanes near my house, I found myself thinking; “this is really good”. Third time… well, that’s when I decided it warranted a heavy plug on this blog. It’s fantastic. Really fricking brilliant. I love it!
Eno’s spacious and laid-back harmonics, Byrne’s guitar and voice, and the beautifully bizarre lyrics and strange imagery that both are past-masters at producing. This is a great album, though it may take a few listens for that fact to open out to you.
As pretty much everyone knows by now, Radiohead released their most recent album online as a Pay-What-You-Want download. It got huge publicity because of the novelty of the approach. The second high-profile album that gets released that way will get almost as much publicity. Sometime in early February the frontpage of all the tabloids will contain photos of scantily clad Spice Girls next to the headline:
Move Over Radiohead. It’s Time for Girl Power Dot Com Following fast in the footsteps of Radiohead come the ever-innovative Spice Girls whose new album, Looking Forward, features live versions of all their Number One singles. The new collection will be available for two weeks exclusively from the Girls’ website before it hits the shops on CD, and just as with Radiohead’s In Rainbows, fans of Posh, Ginger, Sporty, Scary and Baby will be allowed ‘Pay-What-They-Want’ during that two weeks. As well as the nine live tracks, Looking Forward will feature two entirely new songs, including the 2007 Christmas Number One, Buying Stuff at The Supermarket For Christmas (Without You).
However, the third album released on a Pay-What-You-Want basis will garner almost no free publicity whatsoever. Things get old quickly these days. And the question is; without the free publicity can this distribution strategy work? I really hope so, but only time will tell.
PS: In Rainbows is an excellent album. Not that you’d know that from the acres of news-print on the subject.